By Christine McMahon Tumpson | Photographs by Michael Fornataro

One of the primary reasons cited for choosing to live in Western Pennsylvania is the access to tremendously trained, and deeply financially supported, medical facilities. The support from the coffers of the community at large, and from the personal sacrifices from the medical professionals and other providers, has been especially poignant in the growth and development of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, one of the largest cancer networks in the United States and the region’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The vision of the late Henry and Elsie Hillman of making Pittsburgh a world leader in cancer care, led to the development of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside in 2002. This year, in honor of the Hillmans, UPMC renamed all of the more than 60 cancer centers within Pennsylvania and Ohio as UPMC Hillman Cancer Centers.

One walk through those huge revolving doors and it becomes instantly clear that there is an urgency in the air. A need for answers in the faces of everyone there, from the receptionist asking for information, to patients asking for hope, to physicians asking for clues and cures.

They are finding the answers, and when it comes to immunotherapy, one of the leading researchers will be based at UPMC and will join the esteemed Dr. Stanley Marks, chairman of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Newly named director of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Dr. Robert L. Ferris, a renowned expert in immunotherapy and specialist in head and neck cancer, joins Dr. Marks as the two oversee groundbreaking cancer research that will be available to cancer patients right here in Pittsburgh and throughout the network of cancer centers.

Q&A with Dr. Stanley Marks

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center continues to lead pioneering research and development, as well as implementation, in the detection treatment, and prevention of cancer. What excites you most about the possibilities for 2018?

I am proud of the work we do at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. I am also proud of the fact that we are the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the region. There are less than 50 such centers in the country and one is right here in Pittsburgh at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. For patients, that means they are being treated at a cancer center that has demonstrated scientific leadership with top researchers and clinicians who provide the highest level of cancer care.

What excites me as we move towards 2018 is the research that happens across the hall in the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center that can literally be taken from what we call ‘the bench to the bedside.’ We are continually able to recruit some of the brightest minds in cancer research to UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh where innovative cancer discoveries are being made.

We are on the ground level of clinical trials in immunotherapy that are now changing the way we treat cancer. Just last month, the FDA approved only the second gene cancer therapy for blood cancers. We were part of a small number of cancer centers in the country that were selected to conduct the clinical trials on this immunotherapy treatment. This is a treatment that has resulted in great promise and has resulted in remission for some of our cancer patients. This is what we can do as an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

This is a thrilling time to be involved in cancer treatment and research because we are seeing so much success in diagnostics, treatments, and preventative methods. More and more patients are responding to treatment and are in full remission from their cancer. 

Recruiting, and keeping, the best medical teams to garner worldwide recognition requires a vigilant understanding of the latest cancer discoveries, especially those that are preventative. What are some of the most beneficial that are in need of funding and how can we financially support these efforts in Pittsburgh?

We are in a different world right now and the funding for cancer research from the federal government is shrinking. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget was 20 percent lower this year than it was 10 years ago. This is coming at a time when we need it most because we are making important discoveries about some of the causes of cancer from the genomic, tumor microenvironment, and viral triggers. We have learned so much over the past several years and must continue to build upon our research.

We are so thankful for the support of many corporate organizations as well as our patients and their family members who support UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in many ways.

Q&A with Dr. Robert L. Ferris

To be given an opportunity to make a significant impact on the direction of talented medical staff at UPMC is a resounding testament to the importance of research by dedicated professionals. What motivation will you be giving for 2018? 

There are tremendous advancements in understanding how cancer develops and now we are seeing new discoveries and treatments being approved almost monthly. That’s what motivates me. These discoveries are significantly changing the way we look at many cancers and certainly changing the way we treat our patients.

My career as an immunologist and the research that has been happening at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center here for decades is what drives me as the new director here. We have been able to recruit top cancer researchers who want to work for UPMC as we look towards future substantial investments in our cancer program. This type of commitment from UPMC will enhance what has been a historical commitment to immunotherapy for cancer. This is something I devoted my career to and what attracted me to Pittsburgh back in 2001.

Immunotherapy is at the forefront in cancer efforts today. Can you explain why? 

There are many different types of immunotherapy, but basically, we are using a patient’s own immune system to kill their cancer cells. We have learned that the immune system fights our diseases, but with cancer, we have learned that the immune system can be exploited and tricked into not successfully identifying the cancer cell as something it attacks.

I think I can explain it with this analogy: One hundred years ago, people were having 10 to 12 children because only two or three made it to adulthood. However, childhood vaccines made it possible for children to live longer. Cancer immunology uses the same principle. We are creating ways to harness the immune system to eliminate cancer, and in some cases, we are curing cancer. For instance, we know the HPV vaccine can prevent cervical cancer and some head and neck cancers. We know that colonoscopies can find polyps before they have become cancer. We can detect breast cancer at an earlier, curable rate. We can use this same approach and patience to fight cancer through immune therapy.

Because of your new position, you have a greater voice to alert the public about cancer research. What is your message for us today, and what are you hoping to be able to say at the end of next year?

There are a tremendous number of new treatments and combination therapies currently in clinic trials. UPMC is investing in our network of cancer centers so we can offer these exciting treatments and clinical trials throughout the region.

Let me also take a moment to explain the need for patients to participate in clinical trials. We cancer research scientists spend a lot of time developing our discoveries to bring them to a level of a clinical trial. These trials are essentially designed to be as good as or, most often, better than the current standard of care that can be used alone or in combination with standard treatment that includes surgery, chemo, radiation, or hormone therapy. We have done a significant amount of research so that we do not put a patient at risk. The biggest downside is a bit of inconvenience, but we are focused on treatments that have some proven benefit to patients so they are appealing and attractive when compared with what some people consider old-fashioned treatments that currently exist. We rely on the patient to be willing to participate even if it means an extra trip to Pittsburgh or an additional test because that is the only way we can advance the field of cancer treatment. However, we are also working on opening certain clinical trials within our vast UPMC Hillman Cancer Center network to better accommodate patients so they do not need to travel out of their community to receive this level of treatment.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Fast Facts

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is internationally recognized for its leadership in the prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. As the preeminent institution in Western Pennsylvania for the delivery of cancer care, the performance of basic, translational, and clinical research, and the education of the next generation of cancer researchers and physicians, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is exceptionally well-positioned to contribute to the global effort to reduce the burden of cancer.

  • More than 110,000 individuals treated each year — more than 37,000 are new patients
  • One of the largest integrated community cancer networks in the United States with more than 60 centers in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio
  • Created Via Oncology Pathways, a unique web-based technology to provide physicians with evidence-based clinical algorithms that standardize best-practice cancer treatments to optimize patient outcomes
  • Western Pennsylvania’s only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Ranked 14th in NCI funding among NCI-designated centers, which includes three competitive Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) cancer grants focusing on head and neck, lung, and skin cancers, and a shared grant in ovarian cancer, in collaboration with Roswell Park Cancer Institute
  • Investigators are leaders in molecular and cellular cancer biology, cancer immunology, cancer virology, biobehavioral oncology, and cancer epidemiology, prevention, and therapeutics
  • University of Pittsburgh ranked fifth in NIH funding among all universities nationwide, receiving more than $476 million in NIH support in Fiscal Year 2017
  • UPMC ranked 14th on the U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals Honor Roll and ranked among the best in the country for cancer care in 2017
  • UPMC Hillman Cancer Center comprises one of the largest networks across the U.S. to be recognized by accredited, independent organizations — including the American College of Radiation Oncology and Quality Oncology Practice Initiative — for quality, consistency, and outcomes in comprehensive cancer care.
  • UPMC Hillman Cancer Center has international locations at UPMC San Pietro FBF Advanced Radiotherapy Center and Salvator Mundi International Hospital in Rome, Italy, UPMC Whitfield Cancer Centre in Waterford, Ireland, and planned locations in Avellino, Italy (2018) and Cork, Ireland (2019).

UPMC Announces $2B Investment to Build 3 Digitally- Based Specialty Hospitals

UPMC recently announced plans to transform patient care with three leading-edge, specialty hospitals that will offer next-generation treatments in patient-focused, technology-enhanced settings unique to health care. Backed by a $2 billion investment from UPMC, the all-new UPMC Heart and Transplant Hospital, UPMC Hillman Cancer Hospital, and UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital will add to UPMC’s complement of advanced specialty care at Magee-Womens Hospital, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“Our transformative vision will make available the most innovative treatments for cancer, heart disease, transplantation, diseases of aging, vision restoration, and rehabilitation, among many others,” says Jeffrey A. Romoff, president and chief executive officer, UPMC. “Working in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, we will radically change health care as we know it today.”

Patients of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the region, will receive specialized treatment in the new UPMC Hillman Cancer Hospital, located on the UPMC Shadyside campus.

Clinicians and researchers at the new UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital, on the UPMC Mercy campus, will pursue promising new research for vision restoration and diseases of the eye, and offer technology-assisted rehabilitation services that restore mobility for patients with wide-ranging physical and cognitive challenges.

Building on UPMC’s legacy in organ transplantation, the UPMC Heart and Transplant Hospital on the UPMC Presbyterian campus will provide the highest caliber organ transplantation and cardiac procedures available anywhere in the world.

To learn more, visit

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